A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on February 19, 2012.
Psalm 50:1-6; Mark 9:2-9
Our gospel reading says that Jesus’ clothing “became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” I wonder why the translators said “no one” because the real and correct translation is fuller, f-u-l-l-e-r. “And he was transfigured before them, and his garments became exceedingly gleaming white, such as no fuller on the earth could whiten them.” Maybe they translated it the way they did because they figured no one would understand what is meant by the word fuller, at least in the old sense of the word.
Some of you may, especially if you grew up before the days of automated washing machines. I still remember – fairly vaguely, but I do remember – our washing machine that had the hand-cranked wringer. Once the clothes were washed and rinsed, my mom ran them through the wringer composed of two platen-type rollers that, when activated by a hand crank, would roll in toward themselves. This process would squeeze as much water as possible out of the clothes so they could then be hung on the clothesline to dry. Occasionally, Mom asked me to assist – and again, as I recall – it took both hands for me to turn the crank and get the job done. So while it was hard work, in a day before spin cycles had been invented, it was really quite an ingenious way of getting the job done.
And I remember the fuller bleach. As I recall, it came in a blue bottle and you had to be pretty careful with it because if it came into contact with dark clothes, they would be ruined. Do you remember?
The word fuller, the very same word from which the name has emerged, comes from several languages. It began, as far as we know, with Latin and was a part of the Old English and French lexicons. It refers to a person who was a dresser of cloth. The work of the fuller was to scour and thicken raw cloth by beating and trampling it in water. It evolved into the process of bleaching cloth to make it as white as possible.
So the second gospel tells us that when Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James and John, and was accompanied by Moses and Elijah as they visited together on the mount, his clothing became as white – exceedingly gleaming white – “as no fuller on the earth could whiten them.”
Thank you, Mark, we appreciate that little detail. But still, what’s the point? And what is this story about?
Can you guess? I have a guess… well, a theory anyway. I think the white clothing – indeed the whole story – has something to do with the resurrection. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I don’t think so. At the conclusion of Mark’s gospel – and he abruptly ends his gospel at the empty tomb – we find a heavenly messenger dressed in a white robe. White seems to be the color of choice when heaven comes to visit on earth. The very presence of the messenger, as we can only imagine, scares the living daylights out of the women who have come to the tomb. “Alarmed” is the word Mark uses for their response. Somehow, that word seems pretty tame, doesn’t it? But when they left the tomb, after being told by the messenger to go report to Peter and the disciples what they had found, that Jesus was no longer dead but had indeed been risen from the dead, the words used to describe their reaction were terror and amazement. Now that’s more like it. They had good reason to be alarmed, even more so to be terrorized and amazed.
And the color white is used to describe the way the heavenly messenger was dressed. There has to be a reason for that. The same was true for Jesus at the transfiguration. Evidently, they’ve got a lot of fuller bleach in heaven.
But what does all this mean? Let’s start with the word transfiguration. It comes from the Greek metemorphothe. Does that sound familiar? Metemorphothe, metemorphothe… Sounds like “metamorphosis” to me; does it to you? Metamorphosis is a complete change of appearance, as a caterpillar metamorphoses into a butterfly.
We asked what it means… metamorphosis. Maybe a better question is, why? Why Jesus dressed in dazzling white? Why the appearance of Elijah? Why Moses? It must have been important to the early Christians. All three of the synoptic gospels tell about it, and the details are quite similar. Though they describe it in different ways, they all mention Jesus’ dazzling white garments. What’s that all about?
Maybe it’s a preview of what it would be like for Christ in the resurrection. Matthew, in his version, says that in addition to the perfectly white clothing, Jesus’ face shone like the sun. Jesus is glorified right before the very eyes of Peter, James, and John as he communes with Moses and Elijah. Imagine what an experience it must have been for all of them. Every once in awhile a moment comes along that we wish we could freeze for all eternity.
Those of you who are parents, isn’t it true that there was a time when your little ones were so cute, and you wish you could have frozen them in place. But you can’t. They grow up, and become… teenagers. It’s the same with mountaintop experiences. They reach down into the marrow of our bones and touch us with a special feeling. We wish they would last forever.
That’s the way Simon Peter felt. “Let us make three dwelling places (or tents), one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” It is human nature, when one has a true mountaintop experience, to want to prolong it as long as possible. The easiest way to do that is to build a monument.
I haven’t been to the Holy Lands – not yet, anyway – but I’m told that in just about every location where a major event occurred in biblical times you will find a church. At what is thought to have been Jesus’ birth place, the Place of the Skull where he was crucified, the garden where he is thought to have been buried, you will now find a church. It’s a way of preserving the memory of what happened. I’ve been told that a platform has been built just below the surface of the Sea of Galilee so religious pilgrims can simulate the experience of walking on water. “Let us make three dwelling places, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” We want our mountaintop experiences to last forever, so we start building projects. But they don’t, no matter what kind of structure we erect.
It’s kind of the way memory works. Growing up in a small town, it didn’t seem small to me when I was a boy. As I have mentioned a number of times, we had a five-acre place outside of what were then the city limits. Occasionally, I would ride my bike into town, especially when I wanted to go to the library and check out books. More often than not, I’d go with my dad, especially on Saturday night when he did the grocery shopping, and if I was good would give me a dime to buy a new comic book. My hometown was big, and going into town was a special experience.
But when I grew up, especially after I left for college and came back for visits, it dawned on me how small my hometown was. I had built tabernacles in my memory, making those childhood excursions into town bigger than they really were.
Maybe that had something to do with Jesus telling his disciples, Peter, James, and John, to keep the whole thing to themselves. Jesus didn’t want them to tell anyone what had happened… at least not until the day would come that he would rise from the dead.
It must have been really, really hard to keep it to themselves. It’s not every day you get to see Moses and Elijah come out of their graves. It’s not every day you hear the Voice of God come ringing down from the skies. It’s not every day that God’s obvious and evident glory is witnessed here on earth. You’d think they’d want to tell everybody. But they didn’t. In the next verse, the one we didn’t read, we are told they kept it to themselves, “questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.”
They talked to Jesus about it, about who Elijah was and whether he was coming. They were all looking for the Messiah, you see, and they knew that before the Messiah would come Elijah would reappear. At least, that’s the way it was supposed to be. That’s what they’d been told all their lives. The hope of the Messiah was all tied up in Elijah’s return.
They’re filled with all kinds of questions. Who wouldn’t be? But as soon as they come back down from the mountain – I wonder if their clothing was not dazzling white for having had this experience – it isn’t long before the real world smacks them right in the face.
That’s another thing about mountaintop experiences. Not only do they not last long, but they’re usually followed by some really deep valleys. It seems the higher one goes, in the next breath that’s how low one can go.
You’ve been looking forward to that vacation, that special bucket list trip, for such a long time. You’ve saved your money, stashed away your airline miles, maybe even bought some new clothes. You’re going to have such a wonderful time… and you do. But then, it’s over before you know it and you have to come back home… to your bills, to your job, to the everyday routine. You’ve been to the mountaintop and now you find yourself smack dab in the lowest of valleys.
That’s what happened to Jesus and his disciples immediately following the Transfiguration. You see, only three of his disciples went up on that mountain with Jesus. That left nine down on level ground waiting for them. While Jesus and the “Big Three” are gone having a Transfiguration party, things aren’t going so well back home. A man bring his epileptic son to the nine remaining disciples, looking for a healing to take place.
He hadn’t made an appointment, did not know that Jesus wouldn’t be in the office. He just assumed that if the disciples were hanging around, Jesus couldn’t be far away. But since Jesus wasn’t there, maybe, because they are his disciples, they can take care of his boy and his need. But they can’t. They just can’t. No matter how hard they try, they can’t do a thing for the boy.
When Jesus does arrive on the scene, he finds it to be indeed quite a scene. Chaos would be a better way to describe it. The disciples are arguing with the scribes (they’re the clergy who are always hanging around Jesus trying to trip him up), the scribes are taking the man to task for even thinking that Jesus could help his son (why not take him to the local priest?), they’re all about to come to blows, and all the while the poor boy, who is prevented from being able to speak because of his extreme illness (which the father quite naturally assumes is a demon possession… this is the first century, after all), is groveling on the ground, foaming at the mouth, grinding his teeth, and becoming rigid as if he is in rigor mortis.
This is not – let me repeat – this is not a mountaintop experience. So much for dwelling places.
What does all this mean? I think it tells us that you don’t have to climb the mountain to experience a transfiguration. Just ask that little boy who was subsequently healed by Jesus. Ask the father who was desperate to have something positive, for once, happen for his boy, and it does. Ask anyone who has come to have a personal and joyful relationship with Christ. What you will find is that transfigurations can occur in the valley as well. In fact, the chances are that you will find Jesus more in the valley than you will on the mountaintop. He just has this way of meeting us there, taking us by the hand, and showing us his mercy and grace.
If that has happened to you, let me simply offer this… We now live on the other side of the resurrection. So it’s all right for you to tell others what has happened to you, how you have come to know Jesus as your Lord, how your life has changed because of him. I think he’d be the first one to tell you that you should no longer keep such good news to yourself. So go ahead, tell anyone who will listen. If you will, every day – every day – will be a transfiguration for you, and you won’t need a dwelling place to make it so.
Lord, we ask you to be our dwelling place, and to help us not keep the relationship we have with you to ourselves. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.